Revised as of November 16, 2009
Recognizing Online Volunteers
Using the Internet to Honor ALL Volunteers
Recognition of a volunteer, no matter where he or she performs service, is
the act of acknowledging a person's contribution to a nonprofit/civil
society organization and those it serves. Recognition contributes to
volunteers staying committed to an organization, and gets the attention of
potential volunteers -- and donors -- as well.
In traditional, offline settings, much of the inspiration and
recognition for volunteers occurs informally rather than
formally: volunteers coming in contact with staff members over coffee,
talking with board members and other volunteers at special events, seeing
first hand how their contributions are used onsite at the organization,
etc. Formal, traditional recognition of volunteers has included special
gatherings, small gifts or discounts at local businesses, but it's the
informal recognition that keeps volunteers coming back.
In addition, organizations should also incorporate use of the Internet
to recognize the efforts of ALL volunteers, both those who perform most of
their service from home, work, school or other remote computers, and those
who perform their service onsite, face-to-face. With cyberspace, it's
never been easier to show volunteers -- and the world -- that volunteer
contributions play a key part in an organization's successes.
- Be Timely
The most effective form of thanks follows the completion of a
significant task or an entire assignment. Do NOT wait to say thanks
during National Volunteer Week in April, or at the advent of a new
project ("Thanks so much for helping last year -- can you again this
year?"). Immediately acknowledge a job well done and a service
successfully provided. This can be as simple as an email that says
"thanks" and outlines how the volunteer's contributions are going to be
used by the agency, the impact this work may have on clients, etc.
Specific suggestions are noted further down on this page.
- Be Consistent
Whatever you do for your onsite volunteers as a form of recognition, you
should do for your online volunteers; if something can't be "translated"
online (such as free parking or a mass transit voucher), then find a way
to give online volunteers something similar (see the list below for
ideas). Don't get caught "favoring" one group over the other -- many
people will be both online volunteers and onsite volunteers, and they
will notice the difference in particular. Plus, you want all volunteers
and staff at your organization to think of all volunteers as
valuable, not just those who are able to come onsite. There are no
"virtual" volunteers -- only real ones.
- Recognize Contributions Big & Small
It takes small contributions of service - not just the big ones - to
keep a program moving forward and meeting its objectives. Be grateful
for the work of everyone involved, not just the contributions of
the superstars who contribute huge amounts of time.
- Recognition Is Everyone's Job
The volunteer manager is often not the person working with volunteers
once they take on assignment, even virtual assignments -- other staff
often supervise and interact with volunteers after assignments are made.
Educate staff, in ongoing ways, regarding the importance of volunteer
recognition and how to provide it continually, and survey your
volunteers to make sure they are feeling involved and appreciated by
those with whom they are working.
- Inclusion Is Key
Most online volunteers with whom the author has communicated cite inclusion
as the way they most appreciate being recognized. They have said
the best form of thanks is seeing and hearing what difference their work
really makes, being invited to participate in decision-making, and
feeling truly a part of an organization's team. Most of the suggestions
further down on the page are made with this in mind.
Specific Ideas for Recognizing Online Volunteers
- Honor your online volunteers the same way you honor your onsite
volunteers in newsletters, program updates, press releases and annual
report. Also, emphasize the impact particular volunteer services have
and the difference they make, not just numbers of volunteers and hours
they have provided.
- If you have a newsletter or program updates that are sent out to
donors, clients, onsite volunteers and others interested or involved
with your agency, give online volunteers the opportunity to sign up to
receive these as well.
- If your onsite volunteers receive a lapel pin to honor them for the
hours they donate to your organization, why not your online volunteers?
- If you have a bulletin board at an annual meeting with pictures of
your onsite volunteers in action, be sure you invite online volunteers
to submit photos as well.
- Copy ALL volunteers with email addresses on internal staff memos (as
appropriate) relating to programs and services.
- Invite the comments of online volunteers about programs and services,
ask them how they feel regarding support and feedback from staff, etc.
Be sure to show how you are incorporating their feedback in some way.
This demonstrates that you value online volunteers as part of your team.
- Invite online volunteers to special events, staff trainings and
celebrations, if it's geographically possible for them to attend.
- If you are hosting an onsite event which will exclude some or all
online volunteers because of their remote locations, consider setting up
a computer terminal with Internet access at the event and having a live
chat, so that onsite attendees can communicate with online volunteers.
Set up a digital camera so that volunteers who can't attend in-person
can do so via cyberspace. Finding a corporation or university to donate
its resources and volunteers to make such novel ideas happen isn't as
difficult as you might think -- many are excited at the idea of showing
off their tech tools and expertise, and being able to "give back" at a
one-time event (rather than making a long-term commitment).
- Some remote online volunteers may be in your area while they are on a
business trip, visiting family or friends, on their way to another
destination, etc. Give online volunteers an open invitation to visit
your agency if they visit your city (but to call or email first,
- Send your online volunteers "swag" -- promotional items with your
organization's logo, such as coffee cups, bumper stickers, t-shirts,
etc. You can make this a special gift for those online volunteers who
have contributed a certain amount of time to your organization, or who
have made a particularly outstanding contribution to your organization
in terms of service.
- Allow volunteers to submit photos of themselves to include in online
recognition (however, note that some volunteers do not want to be
identified with their full name or location alongside their photos).
- Send a postcard, particularly if online volunteers are outside of the
city where your organization is located. A postcard of a landmark in
your city, with a personal note from you, will be more treasured than
you might realize (personally, it's my favorite "thank you" from organizations
I volunteer for online outside the USA).
- For volunteers within North America, consider contacting a national
or international chain store that is very well represented everywhere,
to see if they would be willing to donate coupons for a small amount off
of a purchase at one of their stores for your volunteers. This would
mean your distributing such coupons to your online volunteers via postal
Suggestions to Use the Internet to Honor ALL Volunteers
- Profile a volunteer of the week or month on your web site, and make
sure you don't favor onsite volunteers over online volunteers for this
"prize." Do NOT make one for online and one for onsite -- this creates a
"two-tiered" system, and reinforces the differences in these groups
(instead of reinforcing the idea that they are ALL volunteers).
- In keeping with your organization's confidentiality, have those your
organization serves to write messages to be distributed to volunteers
about the importance of their service, or just a simple "Thank you."
These can be signed with first names only, to protect privacy.
- Prepare customized, downloadable, signed certificates of appreciation
for each online volunteer, that each can print out and display as they
like (these can be handed out to onsite volunteers at onsite events). It
is very important that these be CUSTOMIZED, with the volunteer's name
(be sure everything is spelled correctly) and a line about the specific
service they provided.
- Provide an online forum for all volunteers, both those that provide
service onsite and those that provide such online, where they can all
talk about their experiences and questions relating to their
volunteering service with your organization. This creates a sense of
community among all of your volunteers, and may even provide a forum for
those onsite volunteers who are too shy to speak up face-to-face.
- Invite volunteers to participate in online advisory groups regarding
your programs, an upcoming event, the design of a new web site, etc.;
many volunteers see additional responsibilities as a form of
- Prepare a short video, as a .mov or .wmv file, thanking volunteers
for their service. Just 30 or 60 seconds would be enough. It could come
from your volunteer coordinator, your executive director, your board
president, or even from several clients. You can put this video on YouTube,
your web site, or a space that only volunteers can access.
- List all volunteers and their contributions on your web site. Include
pictures of the volunteers in action -- and in the case of online
volunteers, encourage them to send in photos of themselves. Always have
volunteers sign legal releases if you intend to publish their images
online or in print (no release, no photo), and if confidentiality and
privacy are particular concerns, then identify volunteers by first name
and city/country of residence only. Children should NEVER be identified
by more than their first names, and you should get a legal release
signed from their parents before even taking photos.
- Develop an online badge or logo that volunteers can place on their
individual Web sites or online profiles, which notes that they support
your organization and which links back to your organization's web site.
|| In November 2010, I
received a VERA (Volunteer Excellence Recognition Award) from Business
Council for Peace (BPEACE), a USA-based nonprofit that
recruits business professionals to help entrepreneurs in
countries emerging from war, like Rwanda and Afghanistan, to
create and expand businesses and employment (particularly for
women). I received the award as recognition for my
online volunteering work with BPEACE. I then posted a
photo of myself holding the award online, posted it to my
Facebook page, to my blog, etc. So in addition to making me feel
a part of BPEACE and feeling appreciated for my contributions, I
got to help further build excitement for an organization I care
There are even more suggestions about how to recognize online volunteers
and how to use online resources to honor ALL volunteers in The
Last Virtual Volunteering
Return to my volunteer-related
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